With each hearing as I sat in the courtroom where our fates were being determined, I started feeling less and less American and more and more an outsider
The first time I visited Pakistan I was eight. We never went prior to that because it was impossible to afford tickets for the whole family. I now wonder what it must have been like for my parents to migrate to America, a place where everything was completely foreign to their way of life, and not to be able to connect to their loved ones except by “snail mail”, which would often take 30 or 40 days to arrive if it didn’t get lost. I remember my parents eagerly awaiting letters from their families and reading them with tears in their eyes. In the 1960s and 70s, phone service was rare, expensive, and shoddy at best.
It took eight years for my parents to save up enough money for that Pakistan trip. My brother and I had to skip school for a couple of months because my parents wanted to make sure we got our money’s worth out of the expense. For me, the experience was a culture shock. The people in the villages where we my family lived shopped in open markets every day because they didn’t have refrigerators. Homes were shoddy and crowded, and every room served multiple purposes. My parents gifted my grandparents a VCR “from Amrika”, which they covered for safekeeping. Their home became the hub where neighbors gathered to watch movies. It was a treat that symbolized upward mobility.
The “better life” my parents aspired to was indeed better than the two rooms shared among 10 siblings and a set of parents, living in slums with open sewers and no electricity, but it was no walk in the park. The first wave of Pakistani immigrants to Chicago lived like sardines with roommates, often slept on cold apartment floors, and worked several labor jobs at a time. They lived their lives humbly and gratefully, and they formed communities. At one point, my father rented out a gymnasium on weekends as a side-hustle, allowing friends to gather together and watch old Indian and Pakistani movies, where they would reminisce about the lives they left back at home. Despite the hardships, America gave them a glimmer of hope to have a better life than the one they left behind.